One empty chair at the dinner table

Students adjust to a new family dynamic


Mr. Victor Trujillo and Mrs. Ann Trujillo stand inside their home holding an old family portrait of their children, Rachel, Erin, Emily and Jacob, Nov. 7. “With my dad and sister often out of town, it’s a privledge when everyone is in the same place to spend time together,” Rachel Trujillo (12) said.

His picture hangs on the fridge, family photos decorate the walls and conversations seem to sway towards the topic of him.

Mr. Richard Altice lives in Texas five days of the week, traveling home every weekend to visit his family that lives 727.5 miles away. A year earlier, he made the tough decision to move to Texas for his job. He faced an uncharted level of loneliness when the second family decision was made: they would not go with him.

“He lives down there separately, just so we don’t have to change schools,”  Anna Altice (12) said. “It’s really nice, it means a lot because moving sucks. Next summer I think we’re moving down there to be with him.”

The traditional family structure has evolved. Instead of both parents working nearby and returning every night, a parent may live hours away for work purposes and travel  home for a few days.

Lauren Sanden (10) is very familiar with this new family dynamic. Her father lives in Illinois during the week and drives back to St. Louis to visit.

“I have been expiriencing him traveling for a while now,” Sanden said. “We [the family] are used to it now. So when he comes back, there’s not an adjustment period, there’s nothing that’s too different. I’m used to him coming and going; it’s better when he stays though.”

The world has shrunk. With the invention of technology, motor vehicles and other advances, the world has become so small it’s accessible by a device that fits in the palm of a hand. While this means more traveling for loved ones, it also means that there are more ways to stay in touch. The idea of a traveling parent has become known as a “single married mom/dad,” meaning that the traveling spouse is still very much involved in their family life, but their physical presence may be lacking.

“I call him most nights, so it doesn’t hit me as hard as it has hit my mom,” Sanden said. “She misses him a lot. Now she has to deal with my sister and I, and I can tell it takes a toll on her. She’s more tired, and I can just see it in her face and stuff, she misses him.”

Although a pixelated screen may not be a subsitute for a parent’s presence, new advances in communication help families stay in contact.

“It really hasn’t affected too much at home,” Altice said. “Our family has Skype, so we use that. Technology helps a lot.”

Technology has become a means of communication for other students who struggle with a long-distance relationship with a parent, but it’s not the same.

The Varner family is very familiar with e-mails and texting, Mr. Jack Varner travels roughly 219 out of 365 days for his company. He left Nov. 6 for Singapore. Adorned on their family white-board is a list of the things he needed for the trip, and Mrs. Nancy Varner prepared weeks worth of laundry for her husband. With an 18 year old son, Matt, and a daughter in college, they try to maintain ties.

It’s not easy. While Mr. Varner is gone, Mrs. Varner sits in the stands of Matt’s tennis matches, texting the scores to her husband every few minutes.

“He hardly ever sees my son play tennis,” Mrs. Varner said. “But I think it bothers me more than it does Matt. I don’t want to make it look like he only has one parent who cares, when that’s not true.”

These students see changes echo throughout all categories of their life while a parent is gone. From sports, to academics, to meal planning and daily routines, a traveling parent is not an easy experience.

“My mom has a lot more pressure on her,” Sanden said. “Since I can’t drive yet, she has to figure out rides, and she tries her best to organize everything. I feel bad, I wish I could help more.”

From shuttling pre-sixteen-year-olds around or the simple act of cooking dinner, there are adjustments throughout the household.

“I’m at school [college] most nights while my husband is off in Utah,” Mrs. Ann Trujillo said. “I’ll usually text Rachel what the options are for dinner, and she takes it from there. They [Rachel Trujillo (12), Erin Trujillo (9)] have always been pretty responsible, so I don’t have to worry too much.”

A single-parent family is becoming more and more popular, while jobs are becoming scarcer. The national unemployment rate is 7.3 percent and Missouri holds a 6.5 percent, as reported by The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“He had been working for his company for a while,” Matt Varner (12) said. “It was like a normal job for the most part. They asked him to start traveling, so he did. Part of it, I think, was to keep a good job. It’s hard with the economy in the toilet.

With parents trying to hold on to a steady income to support their families, some are forced to travel to keep a well-paying job.

“If a parent is gone for the majority of the child’s home-life,” Laura Fotani, family counselor, said. “It will still affect the child in ways most wouldn’t expect. Their mom/dad is trying to maintain good financial standings, and the children may have to mature faster than other kids. They watch their parents balance new responsibilities, it’s a new expirience for every family member.”

For those that work out-of-state fulltime, they try not to compromise their home lives. However, this sacrifice impacts home.

“Well, the quality of the food has definitely gone down since my dad was the main cook in our house,” Varner said. “There’s less behavioral discipline with only one parent around. My mom also has to deal with all of the finances, so it takes a toll on her.”

With part of the family hundreds of miles away, it is possible that family problems could arise.

“When he comes back it is hard to get used to having another parent there again,” Rachel Trujillo said. “We kind of have to shift the responsibilities back over. So, when my mom is in school and my dad is gone, I usually take care of dinner and laundry.  But when he’s back, those chores usually fall on him again.”

Although things may be different with the return of a parent, it’s no comparison to the stay-at-home parents.

“We’re still close, our relationship hasn’t changed much,” Sanden said. ‘We text and talk every day, so it’s like he’s here. I still miss him though.”